By Lindsay Lowe
Google “cats in sweaters,” and you’ll find countless adorable photos of kitties sporting miniature knitwear. It’s cute, to be sure, but do cats ever actually need to wear sweaters?
The answer is almost always “no,” says Dr. Susan Sikule, owner of the Just Cats Veterinary Clinic, which has offices in Guilderland and Saratoga, New York.
Sweater Risks for Cats
For one thing, wearing a sweater could put a cat in danger of overheating. “They have their fur coats for a reason,” Sikule says. “(A sweater) would cause some interference, perhaps, in their normal ability to regulate their body temperature.”
Wearing a sweater could also impede a cat’s ability to move freely, leading to accidents. For example, the sweater could catch on a tree branch mid-leap, or cats could get tangled up in the sweater if they’re trying to pull it off.
“We always say, if you leave a paper bag out for your cat to play in, take the handles off the paper bag so your cat doesn’t get his head stuck through it…It’s the same thing with a sweater,” says Mieshelle Nagelschneider, a cat behavior consultant and author of “The Cat Whisperer.” “Cats are like Houdinis… they can get in and out of things really easily, and then they can get themselves into trouble.”
Some cats may also feel stressed while wearing a sweater, and stress can lead to all sorts of problems. “I could see a cat having accidents all over the house because they’ve got a sweater on,” Nagelschneider says.
How to Safely Put a Sweater on a Cat
There are a few instances in which a sweater could be appropriate for a cat. Some hairless breeds such as the Sphynx do chill more easily, although even they probably don’t need a sweater unless they are in a particularly cold outdoor environment, Sikule says.
Some vets also recommend sweaters, or at least a T-shirt, for cats who have been shaved for surgery. In these cases, a sweater could keep a kitty warm and prevent him from licking incisions. Sikule also sometimes sends older cats home in sweaters after a grooming session if she has removed large areas of their coat.
If you do need to put a sweater on a cat, make sure it’s not too loose or too tight. “Too loose, and they can just get right out of it. Too snug, they’ll really want to get out of it, so you kind of want it to be more on the fitted side,” Nagelschneider says.
Many cats dislike wearing any type of clothing, so the key is to go slowly and not force a cat to wear a sweater if he really resists. “Put the head through, and then you can put the front feet in and see how the cat tolerates that,” Sikule recommends. “If they’re just backing out of it and trying to get it off at all times, then I think that’s not appropriate clothing that should be put on that cat.”
If a cat does tolerate the sweater at all, he will probably need some time to get used to wearing it. Initially, only ask your cat to wear his sweater for a short period of time, and then gradually increase the duration as long as your cat remains relaxed.
To help him adjust, Nagelschneider recommends playing with the cat while he’s wearing the sweater, using a wand toy like a feather on a string to activate his playful hunting behavior. “When they’re in their animated play stage, they’re in a very confident mood state,” she says. “We can kind of trick them into behaving confidently with confident movement…that can help them get used to the sweater, too.”
Above all, never leave your cat unsupervised in a sweater, she says. You simply need to be on hand to deal with any crises that develop.
Keeping Your Cat Warm
Ideally, though, pet owners should avoid putting cats in a situation where they need a sweater to begin with.
A simple rule of thumb? “If you’re cold, your cat is cold,” Nagelschneider says, noting that even so-called outdoor cats need protection from the cold weather and can suffer from frostbite if they don’t have adequate shelter.
If your cat trembles, tucks his limbs tightly under his body, or seeks out warmth from lamps, patches of sunlight, or other heat sources, those could be signs that he is too cold.
Keeping your cat warm often comes down to common sense. “When owners go away on vacation, many of them leave their cats at home and they turn the heat off…we don’t recommend doing that at all,” Nagelschneider says. “Keep the heat where it needs to be for your cat.”
And if it’s a cold, rainy day, instead of putting a sweater on your cat and taking him for a leash-walk, maybe just keep him inside that day. “The sweater just feels unnatural to a cat and it takes them time to get used to them,” she says. “We just usually say no.”